‘Crowded sidewalks are the loneliest places on earth’: How one photographer reenvisioned his work for today’s unsettling times

I’ve been to Japan only once. The memory is dim. I was traveling with my family sometime in the 1970s from a rural area in the United States to our new home in Macao. My parents were missionaries and answering “the call” to work for the church in a place very far from Rolla, Mo., and Springhill, La. — places I had lived until age 4.

My memory of the journey is, of course, incomplete. But I do remember looking out the window of the Japan Airlines plane and seeing the long, flat vehicles used to tow luggage. My siblings and I fell asleep at the dinner table, I am told. I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal, but apparently I fell face-first into a plate of spaghetti.

That was my introduction to a country that would loom large over my formative years. Japanese culture held considerable sway over the places I lived and visited during my teenage years — such as Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Japan’s influence was everywhere, from clothing to electronics. But my earliest memories come from television and the ubiquity of Japanese animation — from movies to serialized cartoons and more.

I remember Ultraman, Voltron, Marine Boy, Mobile Suit Gundam and Astroman among others. My older sister was enamored with Tuxedo Sam and Hello Kitty. My siblings and I were amused by Don’t Pelorian! (a.k.a. Nameneko), which consisted of photographs of real live cats dressed as human personalities.

Photographer James Whitlow Delano has been living in Japan for two decades. He is most well known for his photographic investigations of the environment and climate change. Delano has been a frequent presence on In Sight over the years. We most recently published his work from Antarctica, here.

But like most of us, normal life has been curtailed somewhat for Delano — giving him the opportunity to go through his archives and reimagine some of the work he has done. Interestingly enough, this work, which Delano calls Mangaland Remix, intersects with many of the faint memories of my youth, albeit these are much darker. The work recalls imagery you might see in Japanese animation. It’s a deep exploration of an alternate universe, a chaotic and sometimes sinister one. In retrospect, it’s oddly fitting for the turbulent times we’re living in.

Here’s what Delano has to say about Mangaland Remix:

Japan is a minefield for the zealot but liberating for the eccentric. Human nature is squeezed and molded — oozing like putty out between spiritual fingers of compressed fists. Taboos are routinely opened up, dispassionately examined and discretely debauched, then are quietly set back in place in time for work the next morning, never to be opened up again. Western values are inverted, challenged — absolutes become relative, truisms proven wrong.
Acquaintances yesterday, are tonight’s companions and tomorrow’s strangers again. Eyes meet ever so briefly and never meet again – the moment gone forever. Crowded sidewalks are the loneliest places on earth. Individualism is not enshrined in this Confucian culture as a millions of micro-rebellions provide a feast for the eye and for the soul.

Check out more of Delano’s work on his website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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